My grandfather fondly remembers how, earlier, he would sit with his friends on the charpoy in the verandah – playing cards, sipping chai, and having great political debates. He says, “we usually didn’t see eye to eye on every issue, but we gave each other the space to voice it.” He says that the air we breathe today is less democratic.
The Indian soil, my grandfather says, has witnessed it all. From the massive national movements to the horrific Partition to the first general elections of independent India, and also the formation of the first cabinet after independence – the Nehru cabinet. He makes sure to never miss the first cabinet in this count. The Congress party was known to have inherited the legacy of the national movement then. It had won the first general election with a sweeping majority.
However, there was also something honest and beautiful about that time, something we can only dream of seeing today (which also explains the part on honesty). Nehru invited both Dr BR Ambedkar and Syama Prasad Mukherjee to join his cabinet. While on the one hand, Ambedkar was a fierce critic of Gandhi’s, Mukherjee had several ideological differences with Nehru. Having broken away from the Hindu Mahasabha, Mukherjee founded the right-wing Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the BJP.
The two joined Nehru’s cabinet without any pressure to let go of their ideology. Seeing the intensity of political rivals today and the diligent army of followers who worship them, it is not easy to imagine such a scenario today. I mean, just imagine how unreal it would sound if one says the current government invited Dr Manmohan Singh to advise the cabinet to accelerate the economy in the right direction, let alone be a part of it. The kind of personal relationship with and respect for political adversaries that existed earlier is a rare sight now. And, all are to blame. I clearly remember studying this unique part about the making of the first cabinet in my class XII Political Science book, and I thought it safe to quote it here as an archive for people to come back to because one can never be sure what might be dropped out of syllabus.
So, when my grandfather says the air he breathes is different today, I sulk and agree. It’s not just about fierce political rivalry anymore, or disregard for any other opinion. There is absolutely no space for any opinion at all. Basically, having an opinion is not your job anymore. That you’ll be provided with. Your duty is to propagate it. And this system works diligently in tiers.
First things first, what’s decided primarily is a story. A story which the people at power feel deserves the attention of its citizenry, to divert attention from other things. This story may have nothing to do with real-time issues, however, with the right amount of valour they surpass many social issues in getting people’s attention.
Honestly, I might be undermining the effort that goes into making a story a primetime issue by giving all credit to valour when there’s actually so much more that goes into it – the right tactics, a diligent army of followers, giving up on some journalistic ethics and a kickass IT cell. The issues — social, political, or economic — that actually require all ears of the nation are set as a mere background score. But to be able to do that, an alternative is needed. An alternative which doesn’t question the authority or its work. Fake news is the foundation on which this alternative is built. It is this fake alternative which is constantly fed to the people. There’s only a small section of the society that manages to escape this feeding as they are able to call out the bluff. However, the rest of the bunch civilises into a new unconscious citizenry that feeds upon false information which further legitimizes their prejudices. And this is where the work of these diligent worshippers/ followers comes handy. In such a system, there’s a lot of flexibility (not with the system, of course) but with the power play of words. So, suddenly words and their meanings grow wider. For instance, a critic of the government or its policy today won’t simply be called a critic but – ‘leftist’, ‘anti-national’, ‘deshdrohi’ (traitor), ‘disrespecting’, ‘communist’ whereas an ally of the government would directly convey a – ‘true patriot’ and ‘good citizen’.
A lot of people might agree that Indian democracy has never before witnessed such a fierce competition amongst people to be a good citizen. And in this race to show you’re a good citizen, you are supposed to prove your patriotism (deshbhakti). The problem however arises when one, amidst this fast pacing race, tends to omit the desh (nation) from deshbhakti (nation-worship), and blindly believes in and follows the ‘alternative’ being presented. The worshipper takes it upon herself to make sure that people around him also fit into his narrative of a ‘good citizen’. And how does she ensure that? By policing people and their every move, every opinion. Often times, this snubbing transforms into violence, not the kind of violence one might end up in jail for, but one that fosters intolerance — state violence, mob lynching, and perilous levels of trolling. The state then looks for mechanisms to make sure that this citizenry doesn’t get distracted by any social issues, and only talks about the alternative. The real danger as it seems, are people who digress by refusing to accept or indulge in the alternative being presented and instead talk and raise awareness around the issues that actually need to be focused upon.
The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) is just a mere extension of this mechanism to arrest people who digress. Such people aren’t seen as activists or student leaders anymore. Instead, they become a threat who aren’t just questioning the authority but directly challenging the integrity of the nation. And then, the sentiments of the patriots of the country might be enough to surpass the need for any evidence before arresting these people. You’re either right (as the word represents ideologically) or you’re an anti- national.
So, when my grandfather says that the air we breathe is less democratic today, I agree. I agree because I can see it around me. I can see it when our school friends don’t call us anymore because of contrasting opinions. I can see it in the changing relationship within families when young adults stop speaking out, overcome by fatigue and fear; I see it in the hopes that are crushed when a young leader, who only professed peace, is taken behind the bars only because she digressed.
Kuhu Srivastava is a graduate in Political Science with a specialisation in Human Rights from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University. She is currently working as Editor at The Feminist Times. Her work has been published by Hindustan Times, The Lucknow Tribune, and LiveWire.
Find her work here.
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